A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Header: The life of an accelerator
Illustration by Corinne Mucha

The life of an accelerator


As it evolves, the SLAC linear accelerator illustrates some important technologies from the history of accelerator science.

Tens of thousands of accelerators exist around the world, producing powerful particle beams for the benefit of medical diagnostics, cancer therapy, industrial manufacturing, material analysis, national security, and nuclear as well as fundamental particle physics. Particle beams can also be used to produce powerful beams of X-rays. 

Many of these particle accelerators rely on artfully crafted components called cavities. 

The world’s longest linear accelerator (also known as a linac) sits at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. It stretches two miles and accelerates bunches of electrons to very high energies. 

The SLAC linac has undergone changes in its 50 years of operation that illustrate the evolution of the science of accelerator cavities. That evolution continues and will determine what the linac does next.

Illustration by Corinne Mucha

Robust copper

An accelerator cavity is a mostly closed, hollow chamber with an opening on each side for particles to pass through. As a particle moves through the cavity, it picks up energy from an electromagnetic field stored inside. Many cavities can be lined up like beads on a string to generate higher and higher particle energies. 

When SLAC’s linac first started operations, each of its cavities was made exclusively from copper. Each tube-like cavity consisted of a 1-inch-long, 4-inch-wide cylinder with disks on either side. Technicians brazed together more than 80,000 cavities to form a straight particle racetrack.  

Scientists generate radiofrequency waves in an apparatus called a klystron that distributes them to the cavities. Each SLAC klystron serves a 10-foot section of the beam line. The arrival of the electron bunch inside the cavity is timed to match the peak in the accelerating electric field. When a particle arrives inside the cavity at the same time as the peak in the electric field, then that bunch is optimally accelerated. 

“Particles only gain energy if the variable electric field precisely matches the particle motion along the length of the accelerator,” says Sami Tantawi, an accelerator physicist at Stanford University and SLAC. “The copper must be very clean and the shape and size of each cavity must be machined very carefully for this to happen.”

In its original form, SLAC’s linac boosted electrons and their antimatter siblings, positrons, to an energy of 50 billion electronvolts. Researchers used these beams of accelerated particles to study the inner structure of the proton, which led to the discovery of fundamental particles known as quarks.

Today almost all accelerators in the world—including smaller systems for medical and industrial applications—are made of copper. Copper is a good electric conductor, which is important because the radiofrequency waves build up an accelerating field by creating electric currents in the cavity walls. Copper can be machined very smoothly and is cheaper than other options, such as silver.  

“Copper accelerators are very robust systems that produce high acceleration gradients of tens of millions of electronvolts per meter, which makes them very attractive for many applications,” says SLAC accelerator scientist Chris Adolphsen. 

Today, one-third of SLAC’s original copper linac is used to accelerate electrons for the Linac Coherent Light Source, a facility that turns energy from the electron beam into what is currently the world’s brightest X-ray laser light.

Researchers continue to push the technology to higher and higher gradients—that is, larger and larger amounts of acceleration over a given distance. 

“Using sophisticated computer programs on powerful supercomputers, we were able to develop new cavity geometries that support almost 10 times larger gradients,” Tantawi says. “Mixing small amounts of silver into the copper further pushes the technology toward its natural limits.” Cooling the copper to very low temperatures helps as well. Tests at 45 Kelvin—negative 384 degrees Fahrenheit—have shown to increase acceleration gradients 20-fold compared to SLAC’s old linac. 

Copper accelerators have their limitations, though. SLAC’s historic linac produces 120 bunches of particles per second, and recent developments have led to copper structures capable of firing 80 times faster. But for applications that need much higher rates, Adolphsen says, “copper cavities don’t work because they would melt.”

Illustration by Corinne Mucha

Chill niobium

For this reason, crews at SLAC are in the process of replacing one-third of the original copper linac with cavities made of niobium. 

Niobium can support very large bunch rates, as long as it is cooled. At very low temperatures, it is what’s known as a superconductor.

“Below the critical temperature of 9.2 Kelvin, the cavity walls conduct electricity without losses, and electromagnetic waves can travel up and down the cavity many, many times, like a pendulum that goes on swinging for a very long time,” says Anna Grassellino, an accelerator scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. “That’s why niobium cavities can store electromagnetic energy very efficiently and can operate continuously.” 

You can find superconducting niobium cavities in modern particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the CEBAF accelerator at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The European X-ray Free-Electron Laser in Germany, the European Spallation Source at CERN, and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University are all being built using niobium technology. Niobium cavities also appear in designs for the next-generation International Linear Collider. 

At SLAC, the niobium cavities will support LCLS-II, an X-ray laser that will produce up to a million ultrabright light flashes per second. The accelerator will have 280 cavities, each about three feet long with a 3-inch opening for the electron beam to fly through. Sets of eight cavities will be strung together into cryomodules that keep the cavities at a chilly 2 Kelvin, which is colder than interstellar space.

Each niobium cavity is made by fusing together two halves stamped from a sheet of pure metal. The cavities are then cleaned very thoroughly because even the tiniest impurities would degrade their performance.

The shape of the cavities is reminiscent of a stack of shiny donuts. This is to maximize the cavity volume for energy storage and to minimize its surface area to cut down on energy dissipation. The exact size and shape also depends on the type of accelerated particle.

“We’ve come a long way since the first development of superconducting cavities decades ago,” Grassellino says. “Today’s niobium cavities produce acceleration gradients of up to about 50 million electronvolts per meter, and R&D work at Fermilab and elsewhere is further pushing the limits.”

Illustration by Corinne Mucha

Hot plasma

Over the past few years, SLAC accelerator scientists have been working on a way to push the limits of particle acceleration even further: accelerating particles using bubbles of ionized gas called plasma. 

Plasma wakefield acceleration is capable of creating acceleration gradients that are up to 1000 times larger than those of copper and niobium cavities, promising to drastically shrink the size of particle accelerators and make them much more powerful.

“These plasma bubbles have certain properties that are very similar to conventional metal cavities,” says SLAC accelerator physicist Mark Hogan. “But because they don’t have a solid surface, they can support extremely high acceleration gradients without breaking down.”

Hogan’s team at SLAC and collaborators from the University of California, Los Angeles, have been developing their plasma acceleration method at the Facility for Advanced Accelerator Experimental Tests, using an oven of hot lithium gas for the plasma and an electron beam from SLAC’s copper linac.

Researchers create bubbles by sending either intense laser light or a high-energy beam of charged particles through plasma. They then send beams of particles through the bubbles to be accelerated.

When, for example, an electron bunch enters a plasma, its negative charge expels plasma electrons from its flight path, creating a football-shaped cavity filled with positively charged lithium ions. The expelled electrons form a negatively charged sheath around the cavity.

This plasma bubble, which is only a few hundred microns in size, travels at nearly the speed of light and is very short-lived. On the inside, it has an extremely strong electric field. A second electron bunch enters that field and experiences a tremendous energy gain. Recent data show possible energy boosts of billions of electronvolts in a plasma column of just a little over a meter.

“In addition to much higher acceleration gradients, the plasma technique has another advantage,” says UCLA researcher Chris Clayton. “Copper and niobium cavities don’t keep particle beams tightly bundled and require the use of focusing magnets along the accelerator. Plasma cavities, on the other hand, also focus the beam.”

Much more R&D work is needed before plasma wakefield accelerator technology can be turned into real applications. But it could represent the future of particle acceleration at SLAC and of accelerator science as a whole.